I’m not a Jew. None of my family, or anyone I know, has ever been the victim of genocide, but the Holocaust Memorial Day has become of great significance to me over the years.
From the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT) website, the Holocaust Memorial Day is ‘The international day on 27th January to remember the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust, alongside the millions of other people killed under Nazi persecution of other groups and during more recent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.’
27th January was chosen because it is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp.
The Holocaust Memorial Day was created on that day in January 2000, when representatives from 46 governments around the world met in Sweden to discuss Holocaust education, remembrance and research.
At the end of this meeting, all attendees signed The Stockholm Declaration, a document committing their countries to preserving the memory of those who have been murdered in the Holocaust. It was updated in 2020.
So what does it mean for me? As I said, I’m not a Jew, but from an early age, about ten or eleven, when I read Diary of a young Girl by Anne Frank, the Holocaust, and its victims, have never been far away from my thoughts.
An avid reader for most of my life, reading a book a day as a child and as a teenager, I found myself regularly picking up a book about the Holocaust; both novels and non-fiction books and, throughout my life I have been drawn to films like Schindler’s list, and Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s incredible 12 hour documentary of interviews with survivors, witnesses and perpetrators during visits to German Holocaust sites in Poland.
I thought I had a reasonable understanding of the Holocaust, but when I decided to write a novel about the Holocaust, set in Kiel in Northern Germany, I immersed myself in research and, the deeper I delved into the archives, the more I realised how little I knew. Even now, six years of research on, with a million word trilogy under my belt, I feel as if I have only just scratched the surface.
Since I started writing the Sturmtaucher Trilogy, a day, sometimes even an hour, doesn’t pass without a thought about the Holocaust seeping into my mind and, as the number of survivors still with us dwindles every coming year, we must come to a stark realisation that the only witnesses to the horrors of the Nazi years will be on the written page, or in film archives.
It is imperative that we remember every victim: Jew, Roma, Sinti, Communist, Jehovah’s Witness or homosexual. And that we do not allow Holocaust deniers to go unchallenged.
I’m not a person of faith, but the characters in my trilogy were deeply religious. I do not own a menorah, but I will light a candle on Holocaust Memorial day and stand quietly, reflecting on those who perished, those who survived, those who perpetrated, and those who stood by and let it happen.
Myvisit to Kiel – The suburbs and surrounding areas
After walking around Kiel for a day, and treating myself to a ‘Hearty Tavern Pan’, as Google translated it, a tasty meal of meat loaf, two types of Würstchen in a beer sauce, and fried potatoes, washed down with a couple of beers, I slept well, rising early to catch one of the first ferries that set sail from Bahnhofsbrücke, the pier near the station.
The Laboe Ferry called in at various points on both sides of Kiel Hafen on the way to its final destination, almost at the mouth of Kieler Förde where it opens out into the Ostsee, or Baltic Sea.
As we pulled away from the dock, the sun broke through the clouds and lit up the church towers on one side, and the shipyard cranes on the other. The city centre, around the Innerhafen, is low and flat and only the waterfront buildings were visible but, as we passed the Fischhalle on our port side, and the Arsenal Mole on the starboard, the land behind the west shore began to rise a little; the parks and suburban homes of Dusternbrooker were a backdrop to the former Kriegsmarine HQ and Imperial Yacht club on the foreshore.
On the starboard side, the naval shipyard gave way to the entrance to the River Schwentine, the inlet lined with smaller boatyards on one side, and apartment blocks and parkland on the other, with a marina at its head, near to the Schwentine bridge.
North of the Schwentine, cruise ships and ferries lined the wharfs, instead of the naval ships that victualled there during WW2. The oiling jetties and the moles of 1939 would be a significant part of the trilogy.
Then, as Kieler Förde opened out, and the ferry hugged the east shore, Kiel’s heavy industry gave way to the trees and small sandy beaches of Hasselfelde and Mönkeberg.
Rounding the point at Heikendorf, where Erich Kästner had watched Der Sturmtaucher sail towards the Marine Barrier in Flight of the Shearwater, I could see Friedrichsort lighthouse ahead, at the end of the spit of land jutting out into the Förde, narrowing it to less than a kilometre again, protecting Kiel Hafen from the worst of the Baltic storms, making it one of the largest and safest harbours in the world.
Passing the lighthouse, which Erich and his friends had sailed to blindly in The Gathering Storm, emerging from the fog just as the lighthouse came into view, I could see Laboe ahead, with it’s yacht marina, small harbour and strand, or beach, stretching out as the land curved round to become the Baltic shore. In the 1930s, the harbour brimmed with fishing boats and the ferry docked on the inner pier.
In the distance, the Laboe U-boat memorial, dedicated to submariners killed in the First World War, rose 85 metres into the air, the highest point for miles around. At its base, a restored WW2 submarine, U-995, is open to the public. I’d like to have added it to my itinerary, but I knew that time was limited and there were more pressing places to visit.
This was as far north as the ferry took us, and I stayed on for the return journey. As we left Laboe, across to the west, at Schilksee, I could just make out the Olympic Marina. The games came to kiel in 1936 and again in 1972. The medals for the larger boats were fought out on the course between Freidrichsort and the mouth of the Förde. The races for the smaller classes took place in the more sheltered waters closer to Kiel.
The Ferry called in at Friedrichsort then, heading back to Kiel, it took us closer to the entrance to the Kiel Canal (The Kaiser-Wilhelm Canal prior to 1948), one of the busiest man made waterways in the world. It features in the book, most notably when the General’s yacht passes through it on the way to the North Sea, taking his youngest daughter Antje sailing there for the first time.
Approaching Die Hörn again, and the Keil waterfront, with ships and boats of all varieties, commercial, leisure and naval, I began to appreciate just how much Kiel was first and foremost a port, and how important sailing and seafaring was to the city’s lifesblood, and how well it suited my story.
But there was more I wanted to see.
I’d hired a car when I landed in Hamburg, visiting Denmark for a couple of days before arriving in Kiel. I retrieved the car from the car park I’d abandoned it in and followed the road around end of Kiel Hafen to the Gaarden district of Kiel, on the east side of the harbour.
Adjacent to the shipyards, the districts of Gaarden, Wellindorf and Dietrichdorf had been severely damaged in the allies attempts to shut down production of ships and submarines from the Keil yards, and to prevent repair of any damaged vessels. I wasn’t expecting to find much of the ‘old Kiel’, but the odd building, such as this one on the corner of Preetzer Chaussee and Ostring, had survived.
I stopped at the side of the road and tried to imagine the thousands upon thousands of platers, drillers, riveters, boilermakers and fitters streaming throught the high gates of the shipyards building the battleships, destroyers and U-boats for the rapid expansion of the Third Reich’s navy, some of slave-labour from the work camps located close by, and of the death and devastation that decimated the shipyards and the surrounding districts, and the men women and children lost to the brutality of war.
Deep in thought, I followed the map, turning right off the main road, almost forgetting to drive on the right. A few blocks on, rounding the corner, I was in Stoschstraße, where Samuel and Renate Nussbaum, Yosef’s parents, lived.
I had a scene in my mind, of a woman walking these streets with her children, looking over her shoulder in fear as the black cars and the brown uniforms of the SA scoured the streets for Jews.
A mixture of buildings had survived, facades had been saved and new apartment blocks built with a similar footprint, and it made the street remarkably familiar. A childhood memory of walking down a similar street to catch a glimpse of the QE2 being launched burst into my mind, and I realised that Stoschstraße could be any street in Govan, or Partick in Glasgow, close to where the Clyde shipyards once dominated the city, and I began to feel more of a sense of Kiel as a shipbuilding town.
By the time I’d reached the River Schwentine, crossing from Wellingdorf over to Deitrichsdorf, the sun was splitting the skies and I stopped at the Schwentinetalfahrt, where you could hire small punts to explore the Schwentine river, or take a trip in one of the small tourist boats.
I didn’t stop long – I wanted to see where the wartime naval victualling yard had been – it would become a key location in the trilogy, but none of it remained – instead of the oiling jetties and loading moles, there was a ferry berth and a cruise ship terminal, but Heikendorfer Weg still passed by where the dockyard entrance would have been.
I took the ring road back, for quickness, exiting it at Hamburger Chaussee, the main route to Hamburg before Autobahns were built in the 1930s. I’d found the ideal location for the Kästner home on Google Earth, on the shores of a small lake, Drachensee, on the outskirts of Kiel. A couple of larger lakeside houses sat at the side of Hamburger Chaussee, their wooded gardens running down to the water’s edge, with boathouses, and I could just imagine Admiral Kästner and his family, then his son, General Erich Kästner, living there, sailing small dinghies on the lake in summer; the Nussbaums, their domestic servants, living in a cottage in the grounds. I parked the car and walked along, catching only a glimpse of the lake through the trees, but it was perfect. The house I had in mind for the Kästner’s neighbours, Eberhard and Beate Böhm, and their daughter, Lise, was as it had been in 1933, at the start of the Trilogy.
Leaving Drachensee, I drove on out to Schulensee, the source of domestic water for the residents of Kiel, and turned right, heading for Hassee and Russee, on the main Rendsburg road. I parked in the supermarket car park and walked down by the sports ground to the side of another lake, Russee, slightly larger than Drachensee and on whose shores sat the Nazi ‘educational’ work camp, Arbeitserziehungslager Nordmark.
A concentration camp in all but name, and run by the Gestapo, there was little left, save for a small memorial erected in a clearing, for the German and foreign slave workers who had been sent there to punish them for slacking, or other misdemeanours, and to re-educate them to be ‘model workers’. They died in their thousands in AEL Nordmark, though few people know the history of these camps, which existed in every corner of Nazi Germany.
Although it was a warm day, I shivered as I returned to my car.
I had one last place I wanted to see, a drive northwards to Holtenau, and the locks at the entrance of the Kiel canal. The locks, and the canal, were massive, and I imagined the Kästner family on their sailing trip to the North Sea, and the islands of Wangerooge, Heligoland and Föhr.
I drove back through Wik and the northern suburbs of Kiel, returning to my room in Lange Reihe, to collect my bags, heading for Hamburg and my flight home. I took one last look at Kieler Hafen as I drove along Kaistraße, and made for the Autobahn.
More detailed maps can be found on the website and you can download my route on Google Maps. I’ll be posting about the other part of my trip, to Esbjerg in Denmark. I travelled there before I went to Kiel, but it does contain some spoilers, so I’ve left it until last, and the parts of the trilogy that take place there are much further on in the story.
When I started researching the Sturmtaucher Trilogy back in late 2016, I was dismayed to find that, unlike most countries in Europe, Germany did not allow Google to roll out Streetview. At a stroke, my ability to walk the streets of Kiel and other parts of Germany from the comfort of my writing chair had gone, and while maps and old photographs were abundant and helpful, with a bit of digging, it was harder to get a real sense of the locations I was looking for as I plotted my story.
In 2017, I visited Northern Germany to try and get a handle on the city that would become the centre of my life for the next five years, to get my head around its topography, and that of the countryside around it.
I also wanted to speak to the people who lived there, and walk the streets to see if any of the buildings that I’d located using 1930-40s maps and photographs were still there.
I knew that large swathes of Kiel had been decimated during the latter part of WW2, and that the many of the buildings I wanted to describe had gone forever; the centre of Kiel is largely a new city, arising from the ashes of the old one, and when I arrived, I found it more difficult than I imagined to place myself in the 1930s streets when modern roads and concrete buildings surrounded me.
Then I’d turn a corner and fragments of the old Kiel I’d seen in the photographs would emerge; the occasional row of apartment blocks that had survived; a church, a junction, an avenue of trees, and most of all, the parks and open spaces that had always been there for the citizens of Kiel.
I’d obtained a scan of a British Army map of Kiel from the 1940s in the British Library, with many of the major buildings, factories and utilities identified. I plotted a route on it of all the places I wanted to visit, and wondered how that would translate to modern-day Kiel. With surprisingly few minor detours, I could walk the same route!
I left my rented room in Lang Reihe, where, in the trilogy, Lise and Rudolf Mey would have their first flat, and strolled the short distance to Kleiner Kuhberg, the location of the Judenhaus that housed Kiel’s remaining Jews before they were deported east, to the Ghettos and camps of Poland and Latvia. Despite the shopping centre opposite, a few of the buildings on the other side of the street had just about survived, unlike the Jews who had lived there, and I could feel the past seeping into my bones.
FromKleiner Kuhberg, at the corner of Exerciserplatz, I took a right and headed for the Rathaus, the City Hall. A shell in August 1945, it has since been restored to its former glory. I took a table on the terrace outside the Ratskeller and sat overlooking the town square, renamed Adolf-Hitler-Platz during the National Socialist era.
As I sipped my coffee, it struck me that it looked much the same as in the photograph I’d found of the National Socialist rally in March of that year, where, in The Gathering Storm, Erich Kästner would listen as ‘Stirring words of hate rained down on the crowd from the Rathaus’s balcony to a frenzied clamour of acclaim’.
I strolled around the pleasant waters of Kleiner Kiel, as the people of the city had done for centuries, crossing the bridge, now more of a causeway, that separated its two small lakes.
On its northern shore, in Lorentzendamm, I stopped in front of the City Savings Bank.
The Städtische Sparkasse had just about survived the bombing of Kiel, though it had also been gutted. I had a scene or two in mind for the building, and the financial institution it represented.
A brisk walk away from the city centre, and around another of Kiel’s small lakes, Schreventeich, I could almost imagine the Kästner and the Nussbaum families taking their Sunday stroll through the heavily wooded park around its tranquil waters, before the biting restrictions of Nazi edicts made it too fearsome for Yosef, Miriam, Ruth and Manny to venture out.
The Synagogue, which had once looked on to the lake, had gone, of course, burned out during Kristallnacht in 1938 and demolished the following year.
The spot it had occupied now housed an apartment block, but there was a remnant of original wall in the parking lot with a plaque stating that it had once been part of the synagogue, and a memorial to the forgotten building, and Kiel’s Jews, had been erected on the pavement at the corner of Goethestraße and Humboldstraße. I stood in silence for a few minutes, and closed my eyes.
I already had a cast of characters in my head and, leaving the Synagogue and walking along JungmannStraße, I looked up as I passed what would become the Weichmann’s flat. They were close friends of the Nussbaums, and their home would play a big part further on in the story.
Content that it would fit the bill, I walked on. As I’d wandered around Kiel, I’d kept glancing down at the pavement, looking for stolpersteines, the small brass memorial plaques cemented into pavements all over Europe, each commemorating the last known address of a Holocaust victim; I’d roughly marked them on the crude map I’d made, and I stood for a moment as I found each one, recalling the brief biography that I’d read about the victim who had once lived there, written and researched by Kiel’s present-day schoolchildren and posted on the city’s municipal website. I photographed Getrud Wonker’s Stolpersteine, as I turned into Holtenauerstraße.
The deportation of Kiel’s Jews was overseen by the Gestapo, whose former headquarters were a fifteen-minute walk away. As I walked down Dupplestraße, in the leafy suburb of Dusternbrook, it was hard to believe I was drawing close to the epicentre of Nazi horror in Kiel.
The building itself looked innocuous, now a district police station and surprisingly modern for its age. The only indication that this had once been one of the most terrifying addresses in Schleswig-Holstein is a memorial to its victims on the grassy slope at the front of the building. A sculpture by artist Melanie Pilz, of a rubber stamp suspended above a list of victims, represents the misappropriation of authority for the unlawful killing of millions of innocent people by the Nazi regime.
I stood for a while in silence, still unable to equate the horrors the memorial represented with the peace and quiet of suburban Kiel.
Disturbed, I walked briskly northwards in the longest leg of my tour, towards another remnant of Kiel’s wartime past, this one representing the devastation suffered by the residents of Kiel during the bombing campaign waged against Germany, most heavily in 1944 and 1945.
The Flandernbunker is one of a number of massive concrete air shelters which have survived, largely due in the first instance to the difficulty in removing them, but latterly because they are a large part of Kiel’s history. This bunker has been converted into a museum, Mahnmal Kilian, commemorating both the bunker itself, and the U-boat shelters that were removed and filled in as part of the redevelopment strategy of the industrial east shore of Kiel Hafen. Minimal glazing has been installed to keep out the elements but as you walk through this impressive art space, studying the artefacts, photographs, films and art installations, a coldness creeps across your skin as you imagine the massive walls shaking under the intense bombardment that the RAF and the USAF released on Kiel as the war entered its bloodiest phase.
I’d also arranged to meet one of the curators of the Museum, Steffi Blix, while I was there, and it was great to get the Kiel historian’s insight into the war in Kiel from a German perspective.
As I stepped out of the bunker into the daylight again, I shivered as the bright sunshine slowly warmed me. It was only a stones throw to the northern end of the Keilline, the paved waterfront that runs from the Wik to the centre of Kiel. I’d seen the naval dockyard on the wartime map of Kiel – Tirpitzhafen stirred recognition; who hasn’t heard of the Tirpitz? Both were named after Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the architect of the Imperial German Navy.
Modern German warships, part of NATO, now berthed where Hitler’s famous battleships, the Bismarck, the Scharnhorst and the Tirpitz once lay. I tried to imagine the barrage balloons, the multitude of naval vessels, large and small, the throngs of Kreigsmarine personnel, and the air raid sirens, the anti-aircraft guns and the smell of smoke in the air as I walked along the serene waterfront.
I stopped at a café, on a wooden pier jutting out into the still waters, grabbing lunch as I gazed out across Kiel Hafen, full of not-so-distant history.
Stirring myself from the view, I crossed the road and climbed up the twisting path that led to the rise of Dusternbrook, even at just 80 feet elevation, one of the higher points on the west shore of Kiel Hafen. The path threaded through a bank of trees into a leafy avenue, lined by large villas of the style popular at the end of the nineteenth century. Presumably the leafier suburbs of Kiel had suffered less during Bomber Command’s campaign, with many of the houses surviving the war.
I needed a substantial villa for the General’s friend, affluent businessman Oskar von Friedeburg and, looking around, the well presented residences, with their view across Kiel Hafen and their seclusion, were perfect. I walked along Bismarckallee, imagining the curtains twitching at a stranger in the neighbourhood.
From there, it was short stroll down the hill to the former Kriegsmarine Headquarters, where, in the Sturmtaucher Trilogy, General Erich Kästner had his office, in his role as Liaison officer between the Abwehr, the Reich’s military intelligence organisation, and the German Navy.
It features heavily in the story; the General’s position allowed him access to a wealth of information which helped in his quest to protect his treasured Jewish employees, and he often met his close friend, and head of the Abwehr, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, in the building that is now seat of state government for Schleswig Holstein.
There is a marina on the shoreside where there had once been jetties for the various small craft that shuttled to and from the naval HQ to ships anchored in the harbour, or to the boatyards opposite. I had a use for them in the books.
The Keilline continues for another kilometre toward the Innerhafen and Die Horn, the last part of Keil Hafen, right in the centre of the city. Reaching the end of the waterfront promenade, I looked over at the Arsenal Mole, where German naval ships replenish their munitions and supplies to this day, and to the still working Howaldtswerke shipyard next door. The other large shipyard, Krupps, has gone, replaced by a cruise ship terminal; Kiel is a popular destination for the multitude of large cruise ships which ply the Baltic sea.
Little remains of the Kiel of the 1930s on the east shore of Kiel Hafen – the shipyards, and the adjoining districts of Gaarden, Wellingdorf and Dietrichsdorf were largely destroyed by 1945.
After a pause, I continued on to the Fischhalle, the iconic fish market building which miraculously survived, and is now a maritime museum. I’d arranged to meet another historian there, a curator of the museum and an academic at Kiel university.
I was a little early, so I took a look around the museum, and, never one to miss the chance to get afloat, I spent a fascinating half hour aboard the preserved 1902 steam buoy-laying vessel, the Dampfschiff Bussard. Fascinating, and free!
Julian Freche, the historian and archivist I’d arranged to meet, was younger than I’d expected, and he gave me a valuable hour of his time, answering questions that were frustrating me in my online research, especially from a maritime perspective. His knowledge and enthusiasm to keep alive the memories of the terrible things that had happened in the city were encouraging, especially when he told me of the lengths the German educational system goes to in making sure the National Socialist’s actions would never be forgotten.
I had a couple more places I wanted to see before dark, so I bade Julian goodbye and hurried along the quayside to Kiel Banhof, the main railway station. Completely destroyed in the bombing, it was rebuilt after the war but in a not dissimilar style. I knew that the railway station would have a place in my books, in fact I’d found a photograph of the Kiel Rabbi, Dr. Akiva Posner, his wife Rachel and their three children at the train station in Kiel in 1933, being seen off by the members of his Shul, emigrating to Palestine in the face of the deteriorating situation for Jewish people and other minorities. He’d warned those Jews who elected to stay in Kiel that life under the National Socialists could only get worse; almost half of them left before the door to emigration was slammed closed.
My last visit of the day, and perhaps the most poignant, was to the the Jewish cemetery on Michelsenstraße, which was badly damaged during the bombing of Kiel, but it survived, and is still used by the Jewish community in Kiel which, remarkably, has slowly grown since the end of WW2 and now numbers are much the same as pre-1933 levels at around six hundred. The sign at the entrance said that the cemetery was closed, but the gate was open, and I slipped in through it. I hoped, by writing the story of Kiel’s Jews, I’d be forgiven for the small trespass. As I walked slowly around the older part of the small cemetery, tucked away between apartment blocks, I scanned the names, making mental notes of them; I’d use a mishmash of these in the trilogy. I let myself out, closing the gate behind me.
My route had brought me back to where I had started. As I walked along Lange Reihe and climbed the stairs to the room I’d rented, I could feel the fatigue in my legs, and my feet were sore – it had been a 16 kilometre walk, and anyone who knows me will testify that I’m not a big fan of this form of ambulation.
I’d gone some way to getting my head round Kiel as a city, but unlike Glasgow, the city of my birth, or Edinburgh, there was no hill to stand on where I could view the city as a whole, to get a better idea of its layout, and how it all fitted together. Yes, I had caught glimpses of the old Kiel, and I’d begun to have a gut feeling about how the story would fit into the city, but I wanted to see the bigger picture and, in the absence of a high vantage point, I know there was only one other way.
I had to see Kiel from the water.
More detailed maps can be found on the website and you can download my route on Google Maps. Part two, exploring the east shore of Kiel Hafen and the surrounding Districts of Holtenau and Hassee, will be in the next post.
To read Getrud Wronker’s biography, download the PDF copy and paste it into Google or DeepL translate.
It’s the inaugural Girvan Arts Festival from the 11th to the 12th of June, and I’ll be appearing on the programme, closing the festival on Sunday evening. The venue holds about 25, when full. It may not seem much, but it’s a big deal to me.
Why? Firstly it’s my home town and I’ll support any initiative to promote Girvan as a cultural hub.
And because I’ve hidden behind a pen name for so long, it is my chance to showcase my writing in my own community.
But there’s another reason.
As a self-published author, getting an appearance at one of the many book festivals that take place every year in the UK is incredibly difficult; in the ten years I’ve been writing, it has only happened once, despite me getting in touch with more than a few organisers of these events.
There are reasonable grounds for this – why should a festival take a punt on an unknown author, without a publisher behind them to give an assurance of quality, and probably with limited book sales under their belt? If it was me, I’d probably think along the same lines.
Despite that, the one festival that did give me a panel (together with a couple of other self published authors, David Videcette and Alison Bailley) was Bloody Scotland, the world-famous crime fiction festival.
It was a number of years ago when, Bloq, my third crime fiction novel did, for a short time, create a small stir in the crime fiction community, and it is credit to Bloody Scotland that they were prepared to put us on the programme, coming on the back of me doing a couple of pop up book launches at the festival – Street Cabinetmaking for my book The Cabinetmaker, and the Bloq Street Nightclub, selling mocktails to festival-goers in Stirling.
That, a reading at Noir-at-the-Bar in Edinburgh, and a lovely evening with Kirkintilloch Library Book Group being grilled by Sharon Bairden, is the sum total of my public appearances, so I’m looking forward to the upcoming event in the Dome, in Girvan’s Community Gardens, a wonderful venue in a green space at the very heart of Girvan, a stone’s throw from the harbour and the town centre.
I’ll be in conversation with Douglas Skelton, an author with a plethora of crime fiction and true crime books under his belt, who has interviewed some of the greats in Scottish writing, so I was delighted when he agreed to make the trip down to Girvan. And he has connections, with the Girvan area, and with me, long before I started writing.
For a number of years, Douglas and his wife lived in Colmonell, a small village inland from Girvan, with three dogs and a gaggle of cats, and I was their vet while they lived there. Years later, when I started writing, Douglas was a treasure trove of advice on how to get my books out there, which was a real hand up the ladder for me.
We’ll be talking about my books, The Sturmtaucher Trilogy in particular, but we may chat about the writing process too and, of course, we will be taking questions from the audience. Tickets can be purchased on the website. I’d love to see you there.
The Arts Festival is a new event in the Girvan Calendar, joining the successful Girvan Folk Festival, the Ballantrae Food Festival, and the incredibly popular RNLI Harbour Gala as key events in our neck of the woods, and there are a number of sessions over the two days covering everything from fine art, photography and poetry through to music, flowers, and even regenerative farming, so take a look at the programme – there’s something for everyone.
The Girvan Community Garden is a fantastic resource for the people of Girvan, and visitors. It opened to the public in 2011 and has gone from strength to strength. It is entirely run by volunteers and is used for a number of other events throughout the year, and is well worth a visit.
So, please come and spend an hour in our company, and take in some of the other events at the festival, and a look round the garden. You’ll be most welcome.
Ailsa Publishing is me. It only exists to publish my books, to save me having to leave a blank space in the ‘publisher’ field in Kindle Direct Publishing, where both my Kindle books and paperbacks are published, and in Smashwords, which distributes my eBooks to other retailers such as Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Apple Books.
But I could have called it Alan Jones Books, which would have fitted in with my social media brand and reflected the fact that I’m a self-published author but, in the beginning, I thought it might look a bit more professional to have a publisher with a different name, not that it ever convinced anyone. 😊
So I scrabbled about for a name for a while, but they all sounded contrived. Living a few yards from the beach, many of them were sea related, but I gazed out, looking for inspiration, I realised I was missing the obvious. There was an enormous rock, staring back at me, so to speak.
Ailsa Craig is a volcanic plug, a lump of granite 1,120 feet high, three quarters of a mile long and half a mile wide. It sits eight nautical miles to the west of Girvan harbour, and it dominates the view of Ireland to the southwest, the Mull of Kintyre to the west, and Arran to the north.
Although many places and organisations are named after the iconic island, in and around Girvan and South Ayrshire, I was quite happy to join them. There’s an Ailsa Street, the now defunct Ailsa Hotel was once a lively hostelry, and the Ailsa Berth is the longest one in the harbour, where the Lady Ailsa used to moor. William Grant and Son produce a malt whisky, Ailsa Bay, at their distillery in Girvan. Further afield, the Ailsa Hospital is on the outskirts of Ayr and, of course, The Marquess of Ailsa owns Ailsa Craig, along with an estate close to Culzean Castle.
The island itself is quite fascinating. The solid, cooled core of a volcano that formed the mountains of Arran, the microgranite rock is particularly hard, making it the material of choice for many of the world’s curling stones, including every stone used in the Winter Olympics since 2006.
The remnants of a narrow gauge railway line can still be seen connecting the quarry at the north end of Ailsa Craig to the jetty near the lighthouse. There is also a second railway which has largely survived, from the jetty to the Gas house, used up until 1911 to transport coal which powered the lighthouse, and the foghorns at the south and north end of the island.
The lighthouse, like many in Scotland’, was built by Thomas Stevenson and was completed in 1886. Along with its two foghorns, it warned shipping of the perils of ‘The Craig’, especially in fog or at night. It was manned until it was automated in 1990 and is now solar powered, still flashing every four seconds, 365 days a year.
Ailsa Craig is often called Paddy’s milestone, due to it’s location at the half way point of the ferry trip from Scotland to Belfast, when the ferries ran from Greenock, further up the Clyde. One of my earliest memories, at five years of age, is passing Ailsa Craig on the way to a holiday in Northern Ireland. The ferries now run to Belfast and Larne from Cairnryan, a much shorter crossing, without the romance of the ‘steamer’ from Greenock.
Back on the island, the ruins of Ailsa Castle, built in 1500, sit facing eastwards, looking down on the lighthouse, half way up to the summit of the island, and the path to the top passes close to it. A small loch, Gary Loch, provided water for the castle, and later, the lighthouse. There is a history of pirates and smugglers, befitting the looming cliffs and caves, and the rocky beach.
Ailsa Craig is now uninhabited, but granite was quarried until the 1950s, and the quarryman’s wife, appropriately named Margaret Girvan, ran a tearoom on Ailsa Craig to cater for the trippers on boats from Girvan. Loads of granite are still taken from the quarry every twenty or so years, for curling stones.
The ‘Glorious’, a local boat, still takes folk out to the Craig during the summer months. They are mostly nature watchers, hoping to catch a sight of the seals that haul themselves out to bask on the rocks of the island’s shores, or the 35,000 birds of the Gannet colony on the south cliffs of the island, the fifth largest in the world.
Birds from Ailsa Craig will travel up to 150 miles to feed before returning to their nests. Gannets are considered of least concern ecologically, with the population increasing worldwide each year.
Puffins have also returned to the rock in increasing numbers since rats were eradicated a couple of decades ago by the RSPB, who now lease the island from the Marquess of Ailsa.
On the lifeboat, we regularly exercise around Ailsa Craig, often ‘rescuing’ people from its rocky shores and the deep water surrounding it. It’s always impressive, sometimes foreboding.
When I chose Ailsa publishing as the name that would go on my books, I knew that the logo had to be the island itself, with its iconic lighthouse, although I had to alter the proportions and scale of the buildings somewhat to fit the outline of the rock and form the letter ‘L’.
It’s the sort of thing that not every reader might notice, but I’ve looked out at Ailsa Craig for the last twenty five years every morning, and every evening, and I love that it’s there on the spine of my books.
I’ll leave you with the view of Ailsa Craig as the sun sets over Kintyre. It never fails to stir me.
Hello, and welcome to my blog. This is my first post.
You’ll find a bit about the reasons behind the blog, and about me and my writing, on the Home, About and The Books tabs on the menu, but I thought, in this first post, I’d give you a little more background about the reasons I decided to start a blog.
I began writing the Sturmtaucher Trilogy around six years ago. I was working full time as a mixed practice vet but, on average, I researched, planned, wrote or edited for about five hours every day until I retired from looking after the farm animals and pets of Girvan and the surrounding area in December 2021. From then until the last eBook was published in November of that year, I increased my time in front of my laptop to ten hours a day, working on getting the final edits done, formatting the eBooks and the paperbacks, making a website and putting together a trailer video for the first book, along with all the other tasks that needed to be done to self-publish a book, three times over.
I’d done little social media time during the five years prior to publication – writing had to take precedence or I would never have finished the trilogy. As I approached publication day for The Gathering Storm, the first book of the trilogy, I found I was spending and increasing amount of time on Twitter and Facebook, as reviews came in thick and fast from the wonderful blog tour organised by Anne Cater, and from the many lovely ARC readers and beta readers who had read the books prior to publication.
By early December, I’d spent tens of thousands of hours at my desk in my writing room and, although I’d loved almost every second of it, my mind was telling me that it had had enough. In addition, I had a project hanging over my head which now had real urgency.
When I retired in December 2021 and sold the remaining half of my veterinary practice, I knew I was losing my workshop, along with my woodstore and somewhere to keep my stock of old furniture, which was in a large shed adjacent to the surgery. Woodworking has been a passion of mine since childhood, a love inherited, along with their tools, from my father and grandfather. I had a year to find another workshop, convert it to my requirements, and move the mass of tools, equipment, wood and furniture that I had gathered over the years – I love recycling, so I collect and reclaim not only timber, but anything that I could conceivably use for furniture, or in the garden, or for house renovations.
I managed to find a barn to rent by late October so, after The Turn of the Tide eBook was published, and I waited for the paperback proofs to arrive, I took a few steps back from social media, cutting my interaction with Twitter and Facebook to around an hour a day, and knuckled down to a bit of hard physical graft. It was a joy to do something that made your muscles tired by the end of the day, and to use my hands.
I installed a large steel H-beam with three pillars, floored the loft and built a staircase. I rewired the barn, and plumbed in a outside tap, and installed all my benches, shelving the downstairs and upstairs areas to take all my tools and hardware. I built wood racks to store, for the first time in a truly organised manner, my wood stocks. I will be doing a post about the workshop and my woodworking in the near future, so please look back in on the blog, or subscribe, or sign up for my newsletter.
It’s almost complete, though I still have to repair and install a couple of woodworking machines that I inherited or bought second-hand, but by early February I realised that book sales were suffering by my neglect of the promotional side of self-publishing, something I find harder than writing the books in the first place.
I began a series of tweets and posts on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook; facts about the holocaust, pictures of Kiel, and a series of quotes I’d used as faceplates at the start of each year in the trilogy, from 1933 to 1945. I’m currently up to 1940. You may have seen them, and many thanks to those who have retweeted, liked or shared my content.
But I knew that it wasn’t enough, and I also wanted to give readers a bit more background to my life outside books, and what makes me tick, and to explore some of the issues raised by the books, the writing process, some of the amazing things I’d come across while researching, and a bit about my own likes, in books and films and perhaps even food.
Hence the blog.
I hope to post once a week, and to produce a newsletter three to four times a year. I hope some of you enjoy my musings, both those who have read the trilogy, or my other books, and those who I’d like to persuade to give them a try.